This year’s BFI London Film Festival focuses on the role of women in film with 46 features directed by women and a number of key films that feature a strong female lead. The opening gala film is no exception – a historical drama that highlights a key point in UK history and after a recent controversial T-shirt campaign, it is already gathering attention.
Suffragette follows a group of Londoners in 1912, including laundry workers Maud (Carey Mulligan), Violet (Anne-Marie Duff) and pharmacist Edith (Helena Bonham Carter), as they tirelessly fight for women’s rights.
Even though the film retells a difficult time in history, director Sarah Gavron and screenwriter Abi Morgan, who also wrote The Iron Lady and Brick Lane, are uncompromising in their vision. Instead of telling the story of suffragette movement leader Emmeline Pankhurst, they concentrate on the efforts of normal working women, making it more relatable to the audience and easier to resonate with the suffragettes’ cause. In addition, the production design and screenplay are very effective, drawing close attention to the hardships the characters have to endure, as well as the factors that motivate them, whether it is denied access to their children or the misogynous attitudes of the men around them.
First of all, there is a noticeable lack of closure in the film itself. As the story progresses through the growing influence of the suffragettes, it doesn’t show any form of triumph bar one short scene that is seemingly brushed aside. The characters’ constant suffering feels pessimistic and builds up the need for a satisfying, on-screen success, which doesn’t materialise as effectively as anticipated.
Played by Meryl Streep, the actual inclusion of Emmeline Pankhurst in Suffragette is short and sweet. Only appearing for a matter of minutes, she makes little impact on-screen in comparison to the superb key cast, with Mulligan leading the charge. As Maud, her credible transition from the hard-working, devoted wife to activist is a gradual change that easily sets the pace for the film. With her character struggling against her growing commitments, such as her demanding job, husband, son and increased role in political activism, they essentially mould her into a strong, complex and endearing character. Duff and Carter also deliver solid performances as they show other dimensions to the traditional working woman.
The male cast members are also great to watch. From Ben Whishaw’s stubborn Sonny to Brendan Gleeson’s committed Inspector Steed, they show varying attitudes towards women that are either shocking or chauvinistic. These social norms of the era reinforce the realism of the feature, while evoking a strong, emotional response that feeds the need for a happy ending.
Overall, Suffragette is compelling, emotive filmmaking with Mulligan delivering a standout performance.
Director: Sarah Gavron
Stars: Helena Bonham Carter, Carey Mulligan, Meryl Streep, Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson, Anne-Marie Duff
Runtime: 106 mins